Jason Leffler remembered as a father first

June, 19, 2013
06/19/13
5:01
PM ET

CORNELIUS, N.C. -- The dichotomy of the parking lot at Grace Covenant Church shortly after noon on Wednesday was something Jason Leffler would have loved.

As Sprint Cup stars such as Tony Stewart, Brad Keselowski, Kasey Kahne and Greg Biffle made their way into the packed sanctuary to say goodbye to their friend and fellow racer, moms and dads were saying hello to their kids who had completed another day at the church academy.

Amidst the long faces of those mourning a loss were the smiles of those celebrating family.

That's why Leffler, who was killed a week ago driving a 410 sprint car on a dirt track in New Jersey, would have loved it.

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Kasey Kahne, Jason Leffler
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonSprint Cup driver Kasey Kahne, center, arrives for the funeral of good friend Jason Leffler at Grace Covenant Church in Cornelius, N.C., on Wednesday.

More than anything he did on the track, we learned during the 55-minute service that Jason's greatest life achievement was being the father of 5-year-old Charlie.

Charlie changed Jason. He calmed -- to a degree -- that wild, feisty side that made Jason a star for security cameras in hotels and rental car agencies. He taught Jason and those around him that being the best dad was the best way to fuel the competitive nature that makes racers do what they do.

The words on the program said it all: "Jason lived to race … But more than anything Jason loved to spend time with his son Charlie."

The images of Jason and Charlie on the church's two big screens sent chills down your spine, realizing the two would never be together again. They also made you smile, knowing that the time they had together was special.

Few saw this side of Jason coming before Charlie was born.

"I couldn't see Jason as a father," car owner/friend Todd Braun deadpanned to bring laughter through the tears. "Another Leffler in this world? That's just what we need."

It turns out, that's just what Jason needed.

"I watched the transition from Jason Leffler the racer to Jason Leffler the dad," Braun said. "It was one of the best things I've seen."

If Jason were here today, he probably would have said the same thing. Maybe that's why he was OK that his career in NASCAR never really got off the ground. Maybe that's why he was OK with returning to the world of USAC cars where he first made a name for himself.

He knew in Charlie he already had achieved much more than he could by winning the Daytona 500 or Indianapolis 500.

"A lot of kids spend their lives saying they don't want to be like their parents," Braun said. "I think the best thing we could ever do is have Charlie say, 'Hey, I want to be just like my dad.'"

The theme was repeated over and over. Jeff Dickerson called his friend and business associate "by far the best dad in our small world" of racing in the Lake Norman community.

"By far," he reiterated.

Dickerson then challenged everyone in much the same way Braun did.

"We all have a responsibility in making sure his son knows exactly who he was and how much he loved his son," he said. "When we see Charlie with that same little playful grin his dad had, we must let him know every chance we get to tell him [Charlie] hung the moon with his dad and Jason savored every minute he had with his son."

Coming into the service, I admittedly wondered why people were so fascinated by Jason's death. He wasn't famous like Dale Earnhardt or Benny Parsons or any of the other famous athletes whose funerals I covered.

Leaving the service, I realized more than ever that fame comes in all shapes and sizes, and what Leffler accomplished in five years as a dad was just as significant as anything Earnhardt or Parsons did in a car.

Maybe more so.

As the Rev. Kenny Crosswhite, a former chaplain with Motor Racing Outreach, said, "He was easy to love."

"I was talking to somebody who said he had 'happy hair,'" Crosswhite said of Leffler's haircuts, often groomed to bring attention to sponsor Great Clips. "He did. And recently spending time with him he was never happier."

Jason still was a cutup, too. When Crosswhite told him his name meant "healer" in Greek, Leffler joked, "Could he wound the person first?"

"Maybe he didn't live up to the name 'healer' all the time," Crosswhite said with a laugh.

But Jason lived up to being a dad. Maybe that's why he was able without regret to recapture the love of competition on dirt tracks like the one where his life was taken.

Charlie, as we were reminded in picture after picture, was the reason Jason celebrated life like those at the service celebrated Jason's life.

"It doesn't have to be a cliché 'father first,'" said Dickerson, referring to a line used by many race car drivers and men in general when describing who they are. "Jason showed me, and hopefully all of you, he could do both at a high level."

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter

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